Soaring like the Eagles

West Coast's 2011 season is a story for the ages

West Coast in 2011 were truly remarkable. Is there any other way to put it? There has been a remarkable amount of writing on what they were able to achieve, but it still seems almost beyond belief. For the competition’s cellar-dwellers to, only one year after taking possession of the dreaded spoon, be one week away from following Meatloaf at the ‘G, is as inspiring as it is astonishing.

Not only has it been a miraculous story to be written on its own, but the club’s resurgence has been the source of a number of follow up articles. If you’ve picked up a Herald Sun or read the web-page of any bottom-eight club from 2011 within the past five months, you’d know where this is going.

Seemingly the tale of a complete turnaround is one that must be repeated.

The reasons behind this are quite simple, really. The bottom clubs of the competition need to provide hope to their supporters. It sells tickets, and increases hype. Not only that, but the journalists would love little more than yet another fairytale to fill the papers.

And in the aftermath of the Eagles’ preliminary final encounter, the articles have come thick and fast. If you were to believe everything you read, all of North Melbourne, the Bulldogs, Freo, Richmond, the Demons, Adelaide, the Lions, and Port will find themselves in the top four next season. Apparently they have what it takes to also be ‘flying high’.

Most of it is just talk, though. Which begs the question – can anyone ‘do a West Coast’ in 2012?

Surely some clubs must be ruled out from the outset. It would take a miracle of biblical proportions for Port Adelaide or the Dogs to significantly climb up the ladder. Both clubs have relatively new coaches, an inexperienced playing list, and, you would assume, will view the upcoming season as one to take stock of their lists and start putting together the side that will run onto the park when they are next great.

Melbourne would also have their work cut out for them, and are probably not close enough yet. Of course, star recruit Mitch Clark and hard-as-nails coach Mark Neeld could change that, but there is still much work to be done.

The Dockers are something of a wildcard. Will Ross Lyon lead them to instant success, or will the rumoured club culture issues bite them on the backside?

The first seems to be commonly agreed upon, but there are more than a few who expect the club to take the second path. If Matthew Pavlich and Aaron Sandilands have good seasons, though, success must be considered inevitable at some level.

Similarly operating under wildcard status are Adelaide. Before the NAB Cup, they would’ve been given very little chance of succeeding this year. But the side that has stormed through the pre-season comp and proven eventual winners has given fans more than a little to think about.

Of course, we are still only in the pre-season, so any success must be taken with a grain of salt – Carlton fans know that all too well – but the Crows have shown enough potential to be a much greater side in 2012 than many thought possible.

Then come the Lions. They possess a squad that has so often been called underrated by some that it may now be impossible to fly under the radar. But there are many others who call their list weak, shallow, and skill-less. Rarely has opinion been so divided over an up-and-coming side. Many expect great success soon, while others predict the bottom of the ladder will become very familiar over the next few years.

A close analysis does show that very few traces of the treacherous 2009 trade week remain though, with young stars Tom Rockliff, Matthew Leunberger and Jack Redden taking their place. And you’d have to be quite brave to write off any team with Simon Black in the midfield and Jonathan Brown up forward. It would be quite naive and ignorant to suggest that they don’t have potential, but 2012 might be a couple of years too soon for them.

Richmond and North Melbourne close off this list. Both are at a stage in their development where they would expect to be quite competitive, but it would also surprise most to see either club cement a top-four position in 2012.

There are rumblings of long-foretold success down at Punt Road, with Jack Riewoldt, Dustin Martin, Brett Deledio and Trent Cotchin just a few names who the yellow and black army hope will lead them towards the finals.

They are a likeable prospect, but many similar pre-seasons have taught the footy public and specifically the residents of Tigerland to keep expectations on a realistic level.

North Melbourne are in a similar situation. The other team who has been thereabouts for a number of years now, the Kangaroos really need to stand up in 2012. Will they? Time will tell. It would take something rather special for them to rise to the heights of West Coast, but stranger things have happened. If luck falls their way and a few other aspects of the club fall into place, they could be the ones on the rise.

As the case is with all pre-season writing, though, this is merely speculation. There’s one far more likely outcome for all of this, that some of the aforementioned clubs will improve a bit, some will realise they have much more work to do, and others won’t change much at all.

Because, while it’s definitely possible for one of this brigade to charge up the ladder, it can’t be considered likely. In all these articles about the next West Coast, one obvious fact is too-often forgotten. What the Eagles did was nothing short of astonishing. It’s not the sort of performance that is seen on a yearly basis.

In fact, even West Coast themselves will have trouble maintaining the standard they’ve set. With Mark LeCras sidelined for the season, and their fairytale season in the past, they may well struggle to be in finals contention at all – although it’d be tough to find a footy pundit who would write them off entirely again, after being proven so wrong last year.

Like every season, 2012 will be full of surprises. Perhaps it will be the year that Fremantle finally make the footy public all over the country sit up and take notice. Or maybe it’s the year that Brisbane prove to those who haven’t been following too closely just how far they’ve come since the Fevola debacle. It’s even possible that this is finally the long awaited year of the Tiger.

There’s only one certainty amongst all this speculation. One of these clubs will have to achieve something pretty special to come anywhere close to match last year’s West Coast.

There simply aren’t enough superlatives to properly describe the efforts of that squad. And, all facts considered, the overwhelmingly likelihood is that their extraordinary success will go down in history as not a trendsetter, but instead an anomaly, and a fairytale story for the ages.

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